Thursday, November 20, 2008

Shalshelet: Dealing with temptation and uncertainty

The Harry Potter books are filled with people who are having a hard time dealing with temptation, and are feeling a lot of uncertainty about what to do. In Deathly Hallows we see Xenophilius Lovegood trying to decide what to do when Harry visits:

'Would it be OK if we came in?' asked Harry. 'There's something we'd
like to ask you.'
'I ... I"m not sure that's advisable,' wispered Xenophilius. He
swallowed and cast a quick look around the garden. 'Rather a shock ... my
word ... I ... I'm afraid I don't really think I ought to -'
His good eye moved again to Harry's scar. He seemed simultaneously
terrified and mesmerised... He kept swallowing, his eyes darting between
the three of them. Harry had the impression that he was undergoing some
painful internal struggle.

Later, of course, we find out that he was torn over whether to help Harry or whether to turn Harry in to the death eaters in order to save Luna.

Many other times we see people in similar dillemas. The Malfoys are torn between their alliegence to Voldemort and their desire to save Draco. Harry is torn between searching for horcruxes and seeking hallows. Harry is also torn between believing in Dumbeldore and distrusting him.

The Torah identifies four people that epitomize dillemas. Each of them are marked with a special "trop" note, a special way of singing that word. This note is called a "shalshelet," and it appears only four times in the Torah. The note is shaped like a zig-zag line, signifying someone being torn between two sides, two possible decisions. The tune for the note is similar, a very long note sounding like someone going "back and forth" over a dillema.

The first shalshelet in the Torah was read in last week's Torah portion, VaYera. Angels go to the town of Sedom (Sodom) to destroy it, and save Abraham's nephew Lot and his family. As they lead them away, Lot is torn - does he stay in his town, his home, with his people, or does he leave with the angels? Gen 19:16 tells us "and he hesitated," and the Hebrew word, "va'yit'ma'ma," is marked with a shalshelet, telling us graphically and musically of Lot's dillema. Lot ends up saved from his indecision by the angels who "grabbed him by the hand" and led the family to safety.

The second shalshelet is in this Shabbat's Torah portion, Chayei Sarah. Abraham asks Eliezer his assistant to travel to Abraham's birthplace to find a wife for Abraham's son Issac. The Midrash tells us that Eliezer was conflicted about his task, because he truly wanted his own daughter to marry Issac. He knew that he could return to Abraham and say that he was unsuccessful, and Issac would likely marry Eliezer's daughter. Instead, as he arrived at his destination, overcome with indecision, the Torah tells us that he prayed to G-d for guidance and help in finding a suitable young lady. When the Torah tells us that Eliezer prayed, in Gen 24:12, the word is again marked with a shalshelet.

The third shalshelet is in the story of Joseph becoming a slave in Egypt, in the Torah portion of VaYeshev. After becoming a slave to Potifar, one of Pharoh's ministers, Potifar's wife attempts to seduce Joseph into immoral activities. Gen 39:12 tells us that "Joseph refused," again punctuated with a shalshelet. Joseph first tried to convince Potifar's wife that it would be wrong to do what she was suggesting, and then he simply ran out of the house.

The fourth shalshelet is found in an unlikely place, towards the end of the Torah when Moses is inaugurating Aaron's sons into their roles as priests (Lev 8:23). On the surface there's no dillema here, but the Midrash tells us that, similar to Eliezer, Moses wanted his sons to follow in his footsteps, but G-d decided that Aaron's sons would be priests but that Moses's own children would have no future role. In this case, the dillema didn't show itself in action, since Moses had the inner strength to simply perform the inauguration service. The shalshelet signifies how Moses felt, but he didn't let the feelings get in the way of what he had to do.

So we see in the Torah four different ways of dealing with dillemas:

1. Pray for Divine assistance (Eliezer)
2. Take active steps to reach the right decision (Yosef)
3. Just do the right thing, feel the dillema but don't act on it (Moses)
4. Fail the test (Lot)

Xenophilius Lovegood seems to have failed the test, and was saved from the consequences by Hermione. But Draco's parents passed, as much for self-interest as for doing the right thing. And of course Harry worked his way through his own dillemas, as victorious in his decisions as he is in his wandwork.

How are we at dealing with dillemas? If we can't just do the right thing, we can pray for clarity or we can take active steps to move away from temptation. Either way, if we want to succeed like Harry, one way is to learn the lesson of the shalshelet.


Bruce said...

Great post...thankx.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful insights, though I do not see the importance of connecting such holy words to mundane secular fantasies.

Anonymous said...

just one question, where were the midrashim from? I just am interested =]